Continuing from part one on “What Is Man” (1905). We work through Twain’s metaphors for human nature: We’re like engines made out of various materials, and these materials can be refined (through education, which acts to root out prejudice), though the type of material will limit its maximum capabilities even with refinement.
We also get Twain’s concept of instinct: “petrified thought,” made inanimate by habit, presumably over the history of the species. This bit of Lamarckism is surprising given Twain’s known fascination with Darwin.
There’s more in the full episode: Another point Twain stresses is that we don’t have the kind of control over our own minds that we might think. Most of our thinking is done without plan or even consciousness. However, is Twain right in saying that this means that the thinking and valuing and decision-making isn’t done by you? It’s not done by your consciousness, but is your consciousness you, or is your mechanism you? Twain assumes the former, such that your creativity and deliberation are being done in you by some force that feels alien, but perhaps the lesson we should learn here is not that you are just an impotent bystander within your body but that you should rightfully identify with this body-machine that is greater than the little point of consciousness that Descartes called the mind.
Wes compares Twain’s determinism to Sam Harris’ rhetoric in this area. We reflect on whether Twain is giving a take-down of genius. What are the practical consequences to the denial of moral desert? What exactly is wrong with Twain’s observation that we only act to please ourselves? Mark connects Twain’s theory to Nietzsche on asceticism. Seth connects what Twain is arguing against to Horatio Alger.
A secondary essay that some of us read that connects this essay with Twain’s fiction is Tom Quirk’s “Mark Twain and Human Nature” from Blackwell’s A Companion to Mark Twain. Apparently Quirk wrote a whole book with that title too.